Steve Tsetsi was not born a dad, though it felt like he could have been. Instead, he was born a regular baby.
The first of five kids, he was a big brother to (in order of life appearance) Christine (Chris), Larry, Linda, and Mark.
“He was the coolest big brother ever,” Chris says. “Steve was a person you could always count on to give you advice or to make you laugh. He was eccentric, sarcastic, and caring. A great combination. A while ago, he felt bad for me because my ankle was badly broken, and I couldn’t walk on it for twelve weeks. I had to use a scooter thing to get around. He knew I was depressed, so he bought a bicycle horn to go on my handlebar. It played six different blaring songs. My favorite one was a matador sound so people could hear me coming. Used that at a restaurant once. It did startle people, which made me laugh.”
“When I was born, brother Steve had already been around for 5 years,” says Larry. “He knew the ropes, the neighborhood, and, when I got a little older, he taught me how to cross the street well. It’s odd to think that I knew him longer than I’ve known anyone on this planet…except for my big sister! They were my oldies, my elders, my black and white TV. I’ll miss Steve’s friendship, kinship, daily text messages commenting on the weather or what was on Turner Classic Movies that night. And of course his ever-expanding collection of pictures of ducks…always ducks. I used to call him Marlin Perkins – Mutual of Oldsmar’s Wild Kingdom. He laughed. We both did. We both laughed a lot and I’ll miss that, too. Happy Trails my brother – off to Cornbread in the sky.”
Long before his interest in ducks and TCM (as well, his disdain for TV/film violence and the kind of misogynistic behavior that dominates Mad Men, whose box CD set he received as a gift and never removed from its shrink wrap), he was a high school graduate-turned-cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he learned – and loved – to fly. One of his favorite Academy flying experiences, he once (or maybe thrice) said, was the time he rocketed straight up toward a hole in the clouds and pierced it with his T-38A trainer.
A non-flying Academy story he enjoyed telling almost as much was about upperclassmen cadets who, in the grand and noble military school tradition of torturing underclassmen, ordered him to climb into a trunk. Once he’d folded himself inside, they closed and locked the lid. Some time later, they returned to open it, likely expecting to find him sweaty, or weeping, or hysterical, or angry. What they found instead was the punk underclassman curled up in a fetal position, sleeping soundly.
While at the Academy, where his nickname was “Fly” (Tsetsi / tsetse…fly), he met a charming, brilliant, and sparkly-eyed woman named Deanna Soderberg, with whom he would soon have two daughters.
“I met Steve when he was 21, starting his senior year at the US Air Force Academy,” she says. “He was quiet and somewhat shy but had the tenacity to graduate, complete pilot training, fly B-52 missions during Vietnam, train navigators, and ultimately find the most important and satisfying profession of his life – being a single Dad to two lively, smart and adventurous girls. He excelled at this, which is evidenced by the successful lives each daughter has made and the deep, unwavering love they felt and feel for him. I’m sure he was very proud and fulfilled to his last breath. May he Rest in Peace.”
Following graduation from the Academy, he became an Air Force bomber pilot flying B-52s as part of a Strategic Air Command assignment during the Vietnam War – reluctantly. “Steve was the kind of guy who wore a peace patch on his flight suit when flying a B52,” Chris says. “He definitely marched to his own drum.”
Between 1970 and 1974, he became “Dad” – first to Heather and then to Kristen.
When he decided he would rather be a full-time dad than an Air Force pilot, he did that, eventually moving to Boxborough, Ma., with a 7yo Heather and 3yo Kristen. Even though he was taking care of two small children on, at first, very little starting-over money, he did his best. Because fish was healthy and because neither daughter was remotely interested in eating it, he made it palatable using canned tomato soup as a glaze. He served the occasional delicious lamb patties (by god, he would have lamb!), and he only once tried to force liver as dinner. (Heather held out; Kristen gave in for TV privileges. Neither has ever eaten it since or will again.) Though it would have been easier for a single working dad, and less expensive, he rarely allowed junk as a full meal.
For 48 years, he was a tremendous father. He, as many tremendous fathers are, was a “look it up in the dictionary” parent when a definition was needed. He would explain math homework at the dining room table–without offering the solution–until the daughter failing to grasp the problem’s concept would rather break the stupid pencil in half and eat it than receive any more instruction. When it came to misbehavior, he would notice and punish some of it, and he would ignore some of it. He allowed room for privacy, for learning, for teenagers to “get away with” doing typical teenage things. (He was surely no teenage angel.) Lest he sound too good to be true, he was also known for delivering very, very long lectures to misbehavers, which no one enjoyed.
“From a young age he taught me independence and self-sufficiency. He also tried to teach me how to broil but was repeatedly discouraged by the results. He gave so much of himself to make sure we had the best possible life he could provide. It is impossible to convey the magnitude of my gratitude to him, nor can I put into words all of the ways in which he was such a fantastic father and such a very good man. I can only hope I made him proud using the tools of life he passed on to me over the years, and will continue to use going forward.” – Heather
In middle age, as his Steve self rather than as his Dad self, he routinely played squash on Sundays with fellow middle-ager and close friend John Hewitt (b. Aug. 1950 – d. Aug. 2008). A little less routinely, he played golf. More recently, a little beyond squash, he went on photography forays around his part of Florida with good friend and artist neighbor Keith, but he also loved photographing the closer community of earthlings living around the pond near his place: ducks that liked to sit in trees, herons, geckos, and some frog that broke into his screened-in patio. He was also passionate about dusk and dawn light. (Earlier pictures found in containers of photographs show a longstanding interest in photography. And light.)
As a father to adult daughters and a brother to grown siblings, he was–we may all have been surprised to learn–not just one person’s confidant, but everyone’s. He, while simply trying to live a quiet, peaceful life in Florida with his sunny, screened-in porch and endlessly entertaining wildlife, was also fielding calls about relationship dramas, personal crises, scary health issues, and anxiety caused by the sheer vastness of outer space. He was also the person his siblings or kids called when something funny or interesting happened, the one who got all the emails with attachments of a picture just taken, a story just written, a painting just painted. “Every painting I showed him, he understood immediately,” says Linda (“Pinny” to Steve and only Steve).
He was one of those people other people knew they could trust, and who they also knew would deliver an honest opinion, regardless of whether it was the desired opinion. And, sometimes, regardless of whether an opinion was desired.
As a soul, he hated dishonesty in relationships with people. He was a painfully sensitive human being who would “spit on it! ptew!” sentimentality. (“Thanks for reminding me,” he replied to a 2018 happy birthday text.) He was quiet, but said a lot with his face. If his nostrils were flared, his daughters knew to turn around quietly and walk away. The lines he acquired were from years of smiling – he didn’t age with grump wrinkles. “I loved making him laugh and cackle and will miss that almost as much as I will miss him,” Heather says.
He hugged with his eyes and communicated “I love you” with a soft touch on the top of a head. He was gentle, introverted, self-conscious (“He tried so hard to be medium that he stood out loudly,” says brother Mark, whose phone calls Steve would answer with, “Hey, Mark-o!”), selfless within reason, darkly humorous, frustrating, unfailingly reliable, and the kind of dad his kids (and apparently everyone else) could really, deeply talk to about just about anything. The less empty the talk, the better.
He also liked this song so much he sent the video link to Larry twice.
Those who knew and loved Steve/Dad are utterly devastated by his absence, but the unfortunate truth is that death is inevitable–the only questions are “When?” and “How?” For those left feeling the loss of him, the “when” came decades too soon, but the “how” can offer a little bit of comfort. When you love someone, you hope for as little pain as possible in their lifetime and the best of all possible endings. Steve/Dad of course had his own losses–both of his parents–and personal traumas, but he never knew the loss of a child or the loss of one of his younger siblings. He wasn’t afflicted with a long illness. He never experienced the fear and confusion of dementia, and he didn’t reach a point when he would be forced to leave his home for another (whether with one of his daughters or in a home). His death* wasn’t painful, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault–which means his friends and family can feel grief without the added burden of distress over his last moments or anger toward someone to blame.
And we’ll be feeling that grief for a long time.
“Big brother who called me ‘Pinny,’ you will always be in my heart.” – Linda
If you’d like to share your own thoughts or memories of Steve, please feel free to include them in the comments section below or to post them on the funeral website’s guest book.
Because there was and will be no funeral, in lieu of flowers you are welcome to make a donation to the Florida Audubon Society.
* Abdominal aortic aneurysm, which ruptured. Abdominal aortic aneurysms are a particular danger to white men over 65 who have ever smoked. If you fit the description, it’s recommended that you get annual screenings.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, The Year of Dan Palace, and Pretty Much True, Dr. Owen W. Gilman, Jr.’s “American War Literature and Film: Vietnam to Now” 2012 course curriculum selection. Kristen’s interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.